Thursday, May 17, 2012

review of William Crawford's FIRE IN THE MARROW

I've been reading Will Crawford's book of poetry Fire in the Marrow (NeoPoiesis Press, 2010). There are many things that can be said about it and various avenues of approach. I wish to take a particular path through his poems.

But first, let me sketch out why many poems being written today fail to affect the reader down in his marrow. Too many poems written these days are chunks of air. They don't secrete the necessary calcium of lived context. They are special effects without a foundation. A poem is presented as one drawn-out sigh of transcendence or as a word-jumble trance or as a private effusion with no perspective for the reader. That is not sufficient. The results, oftener than not, are flimsy.

You got to have some bones. You got to have a skeleton if you want to actually go somewhere, be aesthetically ambulatory. You got to build up something – from exposition to denouement. Otherwise, a poem just sits there and squirms in its invertebrate juices. Spirit supervenes on bone, blood, and tissue. Revelatory moments don't come cheap. Flame and incandescence require some kindling.

Crawford's work has a vital structure. Something can burn through it. I think his poems are literature.

This book opens with an eponymous prose piece. Or maybe a fusion of prose with poetry. I reached a line that stopped me in my eye-tracks – sent a burning shiver through my retina. After “she” had spiraled around circles of emotional hell:

There's a pure light source pulsing in her eyes, it's real and empyreal.

This limpid image has broken out from the poison honeycomb weave of intense experience. We as readers are right to be impressed by this startling moment of organic, ocular epiphany.

In “Bluebird Notes,” we are moving through scene and sublimation, all the while to a musical complement. The surfaces seen are raw yet have a dark beauty beneath. From surface and dubious substance, a hot existential shimmer rises:

to be forgotten
then remembered again
in moving sheets of indigo melody
in sustained bluebird notes
in standing applause
like hard clean rain

The pressures of desire, depth, and distance conspire to instantiate an exotic vision in “The River is a Mirror.” Contemplating the looking-glass, which reflects the viewer, we see what water pressure has also wrought into a visage – a lovely form, dazzling cipher of our own riddle. And Crawford's language is carried on an exemplary cadence, of Poundian quality:

remember last November's Diwali
a festival of lights
the heavens touched earth that night
walking through constellated gardens
moving through several milky ways –
horse head nebulae
Tantalus no longer denied by distance

Crawford takes us into a zone of ancient harrowing in the poem “In the Shadow of Arrows.” Intense man that Aguirre. Seeking mammon. A mad, sad tale that reverberates unceasingly. Here, it's down to jungle cases. The anti-epiphany is a heavy thing balanced between stoicism and despair. A millstone lodged in the diaphragm. The brutal Fact pushes against all dream, delusion, and hope:

the blue flame which once danced
quickly fading in his eyes
the hopeless weight of his heart
all bloody and tribal
a mad, simple rhythm of survival

In “Condensed Elegance,” a youth has his normality interrupted by visions of loveliness – Barbara Leigh – by jeweled, ineffable eyes – Julie Christie – and by an open volume of feminine innocence – Laurie Bird.

It's how something changes, how a new air of being rushes into you. When you encounter, say, the difference of Barbara Leigh, up there on the screen and to such a marked degree. Something new has occurred, a complex vision of the sacred and the profane. You are changed. You never forget a real revelation. And the poet imbues the event with a halo of wistful eternity:

realizing she was her own event,
an elaboration of Indian summer
lingering with its own sweet electricity

If you have the writer's fever, innate and slow-boiling, then write you must. Until you write yourself into a dark corner. Lose your bearings. Then comes a time to bust through the shadows accumulated in that corner. A new word. A new way. A new muse. “A Bullet for the Blind”:

after the amateurs are dissected
after a bloody beating heart is not detected
and last rites are written
I shall offer my writing hand to one of these new Ophelias


the single crack that occasionally lets some light in
and we'll dance
with the graceful carelessness of children

When we're feeling crippled, we hobble on a crutch. We begin to identify with the crutch as if it is a new appendage. The flesh of our soul grows into it. Doppelgänglion. But then one day, we get real. We individuate. The crutch itself is not our wound. Not our totem. We break the crutch into pieces and set it afire. And it burns without being consumed. In “Van Gogh Should Have Been a Verb,” the artist is seen from a new angle, and though a stigmata trace remains in the poet, the painter is allowed to burn in his own colors:

there's a symphony in every synapse
flash of brass, snap of snare –


a constructive melancholy
that understands the necessity
of succinct suicide notes


the correct sunset for that dangling swan

In Fire in the Marrow, many such moments rise up from these poems, subtly and unexpectedly. It's like a form of matter changing states, from solid and grounded to a glowing red-cell steam.

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